Clogged Arteries: Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

Arteries are vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood from the heart to every other part of your body. In the best-case scenario. your arteries will remain wide open, allowing blood to move quickly and freely to where it needs to go.

For many people, this ideal does not last long. Blockages in the arteries of the heart get the most attention since they can cause heart attacks. However, arterial blockages can strike anywhere. The symptoms of clogged arteries depend on where the blockage occurs and which body part is affected.

clogged artery

Sciepro / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

Symptoms of Clogged Arteries

Clogged arteries are caused by atherosclerosis, which develops over time as plaques formed from fats, minerals, cholesterol, and more build up inside the walls of your arteries. These buildups cause the inner tunnels, called lumens, of the arteries to become smaller and narrower.

As a result, the heart has to use more pressure to pump blood through smaller vessels. This increases blood pressure and puts strain on the pumping ability of the heart.

You may also notice that different parts of your body begin to suffer from a reduced supply of oxygenated blood, especially if the artery becomes completely clogged. Your symptoms depend on where the blockage occurs and what part of your body receives a reduced blood supply.

Symptoms of blocked or clogged arteries can include:

  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Lower back pain
  • Cold hands or feet
  • Pain or numbness in your legs, hands, or feet
  • Discoloration of the skin in the affected area
  • Hair loss
  • Decreased or absent pulses, especially in the feet
  • Sores or ulcers that won't heal

Warning Signs of Clogged Arteries

In some cases, a clogged artery can cause serious symptoms and require emergency care. This primarily applies when the clogged artery is one that is supplying blood to a vital organ like the brain or heart.

Symptoms that can signal a medical emergency include:

  • Chest pain
  • Sudden pain in the arm or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • A racing heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Asymmetric facial features, like a drooped smile
  • Sudden confusion or mental changes
  • Difficulty speaking or swallowing
  • Weakness, especially on one side of the body
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Vision changes

Call 911 or seek emergency medical care immediately if you or someone you are with has any of these symptoms.

What Causes Clogged Arteries?

Clogged arteries are caused by a buildup of plaque in your arteries. Plaque is usually made up of a few substances, including minerals like calcium, or fats and cholesterol. High cholesterol levels can lead to this buildup of plaques.

In some cases, high cholesterol is genetic, but it is mostly linked to diet and lifestyle choices.

Risk Factors for Clogged Arteries

A diet that is high in fats and cholesterol is just one of the things that can contribute to a buildup of plaques and clogged arteries.

Other risk factors for clogged arteries can include:

  • Cigarette smoking
  • Diabetes
  • Heavy alcohol consumption
  • Lack of exercise
  • Obesity
  • Genetic or family history of high cholesterol
  • Chronic infections

Diagnosis

Diagnosing arterial problems may begin with your primary care doctor, but if a blockage is suspected, you will most likely be referred to a cardiologist or vascular specialist.

Who you see depends a lot on where the blockage is and what problems it is causing. For example, if you have a blockage in an artery that feeds your brain, you may also need to see a neurologist.

Your diagnosis will begin with a physical exam, as well as a review of your personal and family medical history. Additional testing may be done to pinpoint the location and degree of the blockage. Testing can include:

  • Cardiac catheterization, in which your doctor puts a very small, flexible, hollow tube called a catheter into a blood vessel in the groin, arm, or neck and threads it through the blood vessel into the heart
  • Ultrasound
  • Nuclear scans like MUGA
  • Blood pressure measurements
  • Perfusion scans
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Blood tests

These tests can be used to measure the amount of fats and cholesterol in your blood, how much resistance your heart faces when pumping blood (blood pressure), how well oxygen-rich blood is reaching certain parts of the body, and the degree of damage to areas of the body where there is a clogged artery.

Treating Clogged Arteries

Treating clogged arteries should be done with a holistic approach. Your doctor will first address the problems that led to the clogged artery. Lifestyle changes are key, and may include:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Dietary changes
  • Regular exercise
  • Diabetes management
  • Blood pressure management

Medications

Medications may be used to help you manage conditions that can cause clogged arteries, including:

  • Cholesterol medications like statins
  • Medications to control blood pressure like beta blockers
  • Medications to control diabetes such as insulin

You may also be prescribed medications like anticoagulants or antiplatelets to help prevent complications of clogged arteries.

Specialist Procedures

If the blockage is more severe, a surgeon may need to help clear the artery mechanically. This can be done in several ways, usually with a minimally invasive technique that involves a catheter fed into the vessel. Some techniques to clear a clogged artery include:

  • Balloon angioplasty, where a small balloon is inflated in the artery to open the blocked area
  • Laser angioplasty, where the clog is removed with a laser that vaporizes the blockage
  • Atherectomy, where tiny amounts of the blockage are shaved off to open the vessel
  • Stent placement, where tiny pieces of mesh coil are inserted to open the artery and improve blood flow

In more severe cases, you may have to undergo bypass surgery, where a piece of a vessel is taken from one part of the body and transplanted to replace the damaged or blocked area.

Complications

The most concerning complications of clogged arteries are heart attack and stroke. A heart attack can occur when there is blockage in the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart. When a blockage affects the brain, this is called an ischemic stroke. This type of stroke can be treated effectively with strong blood thinners.

Other complications include ischemia, an inadequate blood supply to an organ or body part. It can affect any part of the body. Ischemia occurs whenever oxygen is cut off from an area of the body, and tissues tend to become damaged quickly without oxygen.

Arterial blockages can also lead to blood clots, caused by platelets and other blood cells that collect around the blocked, narrowed area. As clots and ischemia affect different areas of the body, they can cause other problems like kidney and liver problems, poor wound healing, and even digestive problems.

Prevention and Management

The key to keeping your arteries clear of blockages is to eat a low-fat diet and exercise regularly. Plant-based diets have even been shown to help reverse coronary artery disease in some people.

You also need to make sure you manage other chronic conditions that may increase your risk of developing atherosclerosis, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Frequently Asked Questions

What happens if you have a blocked artery?

If you have a blocked artery, blood and the oxygen it carries cannot get to the organs and tissues throughout your body. It can affect any part of your body.

What foods cause clogged arteries?

Foods that are high in fat and cholesterol, such as fried and fast foods, can contribute to a buildup of plaques and clogged arteries.

What are the warning signs of clogged arteries?

There are many symptoms of clogged arteries, including numbness and tingling, high blood pressure, cold limbs, and discoloration of the skin.

How do they test for clogged arteries? 

There are a number of tests to measure how well blood moves through your arteries. Blood pressure measurements are the least invasive, but ultrasound, imaging studies, and cardiac catheterization can give your healthcare team more precise information.

Can you unclog your arteries naturally?

It is difficult to clear a clogged artery naturally, but you can help slow and potentially reverse some plaque buildup by following a healthy lifestyle and a low-fat, plant-based diet.

Summary

Clogged arteries occur when plaques, which are made up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances, build up in your artery walls and cause your arteries to narrow. This blockage reduces blood flow to your organs and tissues. Clogged arteries in general can lead to different health issues depending on where they occur. Prevention through a healthy lifestyle is usually the best defense against clogged arteries.

 A Word From Verywell

Arteries are vessels in the body that carry blood and nutrients to and from each organ and tissue in your body. This complex system works well, but certain conditions and lifestyle choices can cause fat and cholesterol to build up in these vessels, eventually clogging them. When blood can't get through your artery, it can't deliver critical oxygen and nutrients to your organs and body parts.

Be sure to discuss your overall health, history, and any concerns about clogged arteries with your healthcare providers regularly. Early discovery and prevention are key to avoiding complications from clogged arteries.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. Atherosclerosis.

  2. Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The warning signs of clogged arteries. Updated July 27, 2015.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Peripheral arterial disease. Updated September 8, 2020.

  4. American Stroke Association. Stroke symptoms.

  5. Cleveland Clinic. Coronary artery disease.

  6. American Heart Association. Causes of high cholesterol.

  7. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Atherosclerosis.

  8. Esselstyn CB, Gendy G, Doyle J, Golubic M, Roizen MF. A way to reverse CAD. J Fam Pract. 2014 Jul;63(7):356-364b.